John Wesley founded the Methodist movement in the 18th century, hoping “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.” Wesley’s idea of holiness was twofold: acts of piety which connected the believer to God, and acts of mercy which connected the believer to others. To Wesley, holiness could not be sought outside of relationship with God and with others. The renewal of society, then, could not come about without pursuing these twin goals.
We can see what the pursuit of God without the care of community yields in Isaiah 58: 1-9. God expresses impatience, even ire, at the insincerity of the Israelites’ attempted atonement. In trying to quell the anger of God, they “fast and humble themselves” (3), but such action is empty, because while fasting in order to make right their relationship with God, the Israelite people continued to oppress their workers and fight among themselves. They pursued piety and discarded mercy. God proclaimed through the prophet:
6 Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7 Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
The Israelites were forgoing the justice and compassion they should have shown to those around them, and so their acts of worship and devotion were void. Their faith was not manifested in their deeds; they did not understand that without embodying the love of God, fasting meant nothing.
Christians today face the same challenge today, especially when we take a stand for social justice. We know that piety without mercy can be shallow and mercy without piety self aggrandizing. Our relationship with God relies on relationship with our neighbor, a person who has become more likely in these unstable times to be without shelter, food, or simply a voice in her own fate. Verse 9 tells us that once we feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked, “Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer: you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.” We will find God when we call the least among us worthy of life abundant.
Emma Cook is a PCG intern from the Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.